15 lessons I learned from cancer

My cancer journey has been quite a path.
My cancer journey has been quite a path.

A few weeks ago I faced a remarkable anniversary. Fifteen years since I walked out of the hospital, finished with my cancer treatment. Some days it feels like more than 15 years; other days it feels like last week. Cancer changed my life in ways I can never put into words or onto paper. When you face your mortality at the age of 21, on the cusp of beco­­­­ming an independent adult, life – both present and future – changes forever. Through diagnosis of bone cancer, surgery, chemo, side effects, and everything else that occurred in 13 months of treatment, I changed.

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The past 15 years have been a myriad of ups and downs in life. I have learned an enormous amount about life and people. I have experienced extreme joy and devastating sadness. My heart has broken and it has swelled with love. I met wonderful people and shook my head at not so wonderful people. Many of these experiences are common life experiences. But all of these experiences are mingled with life as a cancer survivor, because that’s what I am. I once thought I could categorize my life into pieces of a pie – daughter, aunt, friend, colleague, young adult, cancer survivor, etc. I quickly learned that is not possible since every piece makes up me. So I learned to embrace every part, be grateful for every breath and try really hard to appreciate experiences, laughter, people, health, my body and life in general.

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Cancer has taught me many lessons. Not all good. But frankly not all bad. You learn to embrace the positive, while acknowledging the blah.

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1. My cancer journey will never really end. I used to think the longer post-treatment I was, the less I’d worry or think about cancer. I thought I could squeeze my cancer journey into the back of my mind and shut the door. That didn’t really happen. While the worry and thoughts faded over time, I’ve accepted they never disappear. Every year as my annual check up approaches, I feel a bit anxious. When I meet someone newly diagnosed or out of treatment, vivid memories come back quickly. Cancer taught me to be vigilant about my health and listen to and appreciate my body. As a survivor, I learn to balance positive thinking with the worry and accept I will never be carefree and naïve again. Most days, I think that’s not a bad way to be. Other days I’d give anything to not know that worry and anxiety. I am alive and cancer will forever be part of that life. My regular wish is to be alive for another 45-50 years to enjoy my life and body.

My body was strong to hike parts of Alaska!
My strong body hiked parts of Alaska!

2. My body is stronger than I (and some people) give it credit for. I babied my body for months post-treatment, terrified of minor aches and worried any wrong step would hurt my leg. Then I realized (with much support from doctors, family, friends and fellow survivors) I was holding myself back from having fun and living. I started biking and hiking. Then returned to the gym for strength training and yoga. And slowly my confidence rose, which made me a happier person because I felt more “normal.” I still hesitate with certain activities (and of course should be cautious) but feel pride at how much I’m able to do and how much I’m willing to try. I’ve learned to channel the doubts in my mind into cautious courage. I still get super irritated when I can’t do something – run, play softball, ride horses – but I’ve learned to focus more on what I can do.
3. I didn’t give my dad cancer. A few months into treatment, my dad rested his hand on mine and said, “I wish I could take your cancer.” Appalled, I told him never to say that again. He did twice more, until I freaked out and made him promise. I wouldn’t wish that disease on any person. Several months later, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which he fought for six years until his body grew too tired. My rational side always knew he wasn’t magic or able to perform miracles but my emotional side always wondered, causing lots of guilt. It took years to finally accept I didn’t give cancer to my dad. I will honestly never understand why his path was different from mine, but I know deep down it was not ours to determine. I will always actually cherish the bond that cancer gave him and me.
4. Make great memories whenever you can. Listen up – Life is short, whether you live to 50, 80 or 97. And it goes fast. Don’t pass up opportunities to make memories, especially with people you love.
5. The simple things really are the best and most important. A kiss from my husband, laughter from kids, my mom’s hug, wrapping my arms around a horse’s neck, an afternoon with girlfriends, the sound of waves in a lake, a good book, a long bike ride. There are so many wonderful things to enjoy in life. So often we get caught up in the drama, responsibilities and demands of life that we forget to appreciate the simple acts and moments that touch us. When you face your own mortality, you start to recognize those simple things as blessed moments in life.
6.Fresh air is so refreshing. Being stuck in a hospital room for 4-14 days at a time does something to your senses. Every time I left the hospital after treatment, I’d pause for a few moments to breath in real air, feel the breeze and sun. Ever since then I can’t be cooped up indoors for too long without feeling antsy. Our environment is an amazing thing; we need to protect it more.

Bright flowers make me happy!
Bright flowers make me happy!

7. Taking time to smell the flowers does help. I’ve always loved bright flowers – sunflowers, daisies, carnations, petunias, lilac. And I love to stop to smell flowers, whether on a walk or in a vase on my table. It wakes my senses and reminds me of the beauty in our world.
8. Laughter is the best medicine. I take life a bit more serious than most. I always have. But I love to laugh so often surround myself with people who help me lighten up. My husband is one example of someone who makes me laugh all the time – sometimes when I’m trying to be irritated with him!
9. Giving back does feel good. I have a difficult time saying no to helping others. It’s not a negative; just makes me tired sometimes! However, I get great satisfaction and delight at helping others. I volunteer when I can. I feel blessed with all I have – health, family, job, house, etc. Many others are not as fortunate as me. I believe if everyone did something, no matter how small it seems, our world would be an amazing place, without so much anger, jealousy and need.
10. Your true friends never desert you.  I am truly blessed to have the friends I have. Some have been with me since childhood; others through college; still others post college. I love these people like family. While other friends fade in and out (and I do believe people enter your life for various reasons), these people stand beside me, through relationships, jobs, kids and life. I’m grateful for these people and hope I’ve told them that often.

My BFF since age 3!
My BFF since age 3!

11. You never really know who your true friends are until something major happens. I have been touched by several major instances in life. And each time there are a few wonderful friends who step up to lend a shoulder, ear or hand to help and support. Often it’s the same friends but sometimes it’s been a new friend. Each time, there also have been people who fade from my life. Disappointing but I’d rather know now than spend too much more time on that not so real friendship.
12. You really should dance like no one is watching. And who cares if they are watching? I was always the first one on the dance floor at the clubs during college and continue to love music. My sister and I are addicted to Zumba for the fun dances and happy music. Ask my nieces and nephew how often I turn the music on and pull them up to dance (with many laughs). I love to get lost in music and feel my body move – it means I have a strong body to enjoy life!
13. Life is an adventure – embrace and explore it. The world around us is big and beautiful. There are so many activities and opportunities waiting for you. Make a list of new activities you want to try and DO those! Don’t sit on your couch or on the sidelines. Book a trip with someone you love. Take that bike ride. Take a road trip to somewhere new. Explore that big city.
14. Don’t wait to tell someone how you feel, especially if it’s love. Being vulnerable and emotional isn’t easy for anyone. Sometimes it’s easier just to assume someone knows how you feel. But don’t assume. And don’t share via social media. Say it. And don’t waste a chance to share how you feel. That moment may never present itself again. There may come a moment in life when you can’t share how you feel – you don’t want to regret that.
15. Life truly is a gift not to be wasted. You get one mortal life and one opportunity to enjoy it. Don’t waste it. That doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes or you have to smile all the time. It means make the most of the time you have with the people you love. Learn what you love, learn who you love and go for it. Living life doesn’t mean sitting on the sidelines.

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Note: this is dedicated to my family who never stop supporting and loving me, even during the ‘dark’ days; my dad who I miss daily but taught me about bravery; and the sweet young woman who recently finished treatment and is finding her ‘new normal’ in life after treatment. Thank you to my oncology team and surgeon for always fighting for their patients.

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